This excerpt has been adapted from Tricycle’s online course, “Embracing Impermanence and Imperfection: Bringing Compassion to Life,” with Martine Batchelor, Laura Bridgman, and Gavin Milne. Learn more about the course and enroll at learn.tricycle.org.
Our own exploration of impermanence can reveal that nothing is really separate and everything is relational. So what does this mean for us as humans when things enter our life, our awareness, that seem to require more of us or something different than what we are used to bringing to the world? I find myself wondering now and again what the Buddha would be doing right now, how he would move in this globalized world. How would he and how should we respond to the crises that are so clearly interrelated and inseparable: the collective, continually surfacing injustices that have been carried through history, the ecological crisis that all species on this earth face, as well as simply the overarching problems that are somewhat institutionalized into many of the frameworks within which we inevitably live our lives? What are we to do in this matrix of conditions?
Looking at the ecological crisis, you could say we face a crisis of separation or disconnection as a species who is damaging its sustaining life support systems. Our alley here is that there is only just this moment, and it’s OK if this moment feels imperfect or if we find ourselves struggling or caught up in the activity. Recalling impermanence, we’re invited to engage in the world not to seek a permanent solution or to seek being able to fix something in a permanent way. We’re invited to respond in ways that are not driven by greed, hatred, and delusion—the forces of control and separation. In this way it may be through a journey of inner discovery that is also not separate from the world around us that we start to understand our pathways forward more clearly.
But suppose these crises of separation really do need something more from us? They’re so big and they’re so collective, they’re due to so many factors over time, it potentially feels important not to bring more separation into the arena of these crises. So what can we as individuals bring? We can’t get beyond ourselves. We can’t overextend ourselves. You might have discovered in yourself a feeling that some of these global issues are too overwhelming to turn toward. It’s this idea that we’re carrying enough on our plate as it is, how on Earth do we open to and let in the kind of gravity of what’s being pointed to in these collective crises? These global crises of our era aren’t about somehow finding a way to hold that weight or carry it on our shoulders. It’s too much for any one of us to hold and it’s really important to have a sense of self-compassion with that. But there is something in us that is also part of the doorway to what we perhaps seek in terms of freedom and connection. Through exploring and understanding and seeing the interdependent, interconnected nature of lives, an authentic compassion can start to come into play that both can meet us where we’re at and can also start to meet others where they’re at.
From my own exploration around the ecological crisis, what I’ve come to notice in myself is that there’s a kind of doing movement within us that has us act and engage in the world, but it’s actually a bit more like or comes from a place of non-doing. It’s perhaps how the Buddha moved in the world, with a sense of wholeness that is different in each and every one of us but perhaps available in the different situations we find ourselves in.
For example, I’ve found all manner of curious responses in terms of feeling what I “should” be doing and what everyone else should be doing, or trying to find a fixed sense of what needs to happen or of what we all need to be doing, on the one hand, and then going into an experience of cutting myself off and just saying, “There’s nothing I can do.” I’ve gone from going into an experience of suddenly having a lot of energy to try to do an awful lot and feeling like I shouldn’t need to be doing an awful lot. I’ve flitted regularly between these states and it’s kind of neat to see the way in which different flavors of the separating forces of greed, hatred, and delusion have been there in each of these movements. But through all this, my feelings have naturally moved toward this sense of doing what’s available from a sense of non-doing: that by turning toward and embracing the imperfection and impermanence that we meet in situations in life, we can also potentially encounter a flow of non-separation within us.
Recently, this came into play for me when I became aware that the COP26 Climate Conference was going to be held in the UK, in Glasgow, as close as it’s ever been to me, as far as I’m aware, during a period of time where I had other things going on. It wasn’t obvious how I could be there. Sitting with that for a little while and feeling the resistance of not doing and the feeling of wanting to overextend myself, (which also had flavors of greed, hatred, and delusion), I discovered within the flow that yes, I needed to go and be there. Then the trip to Glasgow unfolded and it all felt very smooth and clean. It was also very open-ended in terms of what I was to discover while attending the climate conference and a protest march during the middle of the conference where 100,000 people gathered on the basis of wanting change and transformation. So I offer this as something to explore in your own life. There’s a kind of movement that’s active, engaging, and responding, and it may at times feel like a doing that’s coming from a place of non-doing. We can spend as much time doing in the sense of resisting things that feel like we’re being called to respond to as we can trying to fix and control things. But there is this other possibility in there as well.
If you think about the opposite of the flavors of greed, hatred, and delusion or ignorance, craving and aversion, there are these qualities of compassion, generosity, and wakeful awareness that can mature and lead to wisdom. Maybe as this happens, as we support these three qualities and move in the world in whatever way they do, we start to also develop what is sometimes known as the wings of awakening, or the wings of compassion and wisdom, that in a sense know what needs to be done.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.